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August 16, 2019

The law of the camera

compressed-King's_Cross_Western_Concourse-wikimedia.jpgAs if cued by the end of last week's installment, this week the Financial Times (paywalled), followed by many others broke the news that Argent LLP, the lead developer in regenerating the Kings Cross district of London in the mid-2000s, is using facial recognition to surveil the entire area. The 67-acre site includes two mainline railway stations, a major Underground interchange station, schools, retailers, the Eurostar terminal, a local college, ten public parks, 20 streets, 50 buildings, 1,900 homes...and, because it happens to be there, Google's UK headquarters. (OK, Google: how do you like it when you're on the receiving end instead of dishing it out?)

So, to be clear: this system has been installed - doubtless "for your safety" - even though over and over these automated facial recognition systems are being shown to be almost laughably inaccurate: in London, Big Brother Watch found a 95% inaccuracy rate (PDF); in California, the ACLU found that the software incorrectly matched one in five lawmakers to criminals' mugshots. US cities - San Francisco, Oakland, Somerville, Massachusetts - are legislating bans as a result. In London, however, Canary Wharf, a large development area in east London, told the BBC and the Financial Times that it is considering following Kings Cross's lead.

Inaccuracy is only part of the problem with the Kings Cross situation - and the deeper problem will persist even if and when the systems become accurate enough for prime time (which will open a whole new can of worms). The deeper problem is the effective privatization of public space: here, a private entity has installed a facial recognition system with no notice to any of the people being surveilled, with no public debate, and, according to the BBC, no notice to either local or central government.

To place this in context, it's worth revisiting the history of the growth of CCTV cameras in the UK, the world leader (if that's the word you want) in this area. As Simon Davies recounts in his recently-published memoir about his 30 years of privacy campaigning (and as I also remember), the UK began embracing CCTV in the mid-1990s (PDF), fueled in part by the emotive role it played in catching the murderers in the 1993 Jamie Bulger case. Central government began offering local councils funding to install cameras. Deployment accelerated after 9/11, but the trend had already been set.

By 2012, when the Protection of Freedoms Act was passed to create the surveillance camera commissioner's office, public resistance had largely vanished. At the first Surveillance Camera Conference, in 2013, representatives from several local councils said they frequently received letters from local residents requesting additional cameras. They were not universally happy about this; around that time the responsibility for paying for the cameras and the systems to run them was being shifted to the councils themselves, and many seemed to be reconsidering their value. There has never been much research assessing whether the cameras cut crime; what there is suggests CCTV diverts it rather than stops it. A 2013 briefing paper by the College of Policing (PDF) says CCTV provides a "small, but statistically significant, reduction in crime", though it notes that effectiveness depends on the type of crime and the setting. "It has no impact on levels of violent crime," the paper concludes. A 2014 summary of research to date notes the need to balance privacy concerns and assess cost-effectiveness. Adding on highly unreliable facial recognition won't change that - but it will entrench unnecessary harassment.

The issue we're more concerned about here is the role of private operators. At the 2013 conference, public operators complained that their private counterparts, operating at least ten times as many cameras, were not required to follow the same rules as public bodies (although many did). Reliable statistics are hard to find. A recent estimate claims London hosts 627,707 CCTV cameras, but it's fairer to say that not even the Surveillance Camera Commissioner really knows. It is clear, however, that the vast majority of cameras are privately owned and operated.

Twenty years ago, Davies correctly foresaw that networking the cameras would enable tracking people across the city. Neither he nor the rest of us saw that (deeply flawed) facial recognition would arrive this soon, if only because it's the result of millions of independent individual decisions to publicly post billions of facial photographs. This is what created the necessary mass of training data that, as Olivia Solon has documented, researchers have appropriated.

For an area the size and public importance of Kings Cross to be monitored via privately-owned facial recognition systems that have attracted enormous controversy in the public sector is profoundly disturbing. You can sort of see their logic: Kings Cross station is now a large shopping mall surrounding a major train station, so what's the difference between that and a shopping mall without one? But effectively, in setting the rules of engagement for part of our city that no one voted to privatize, Argent is making law, a job no one voted to give it. A London - or any other major city - carved up into corporately sanitized districts connected by lawless streets - is not where any of us asked to live.


Illustrations: The new Kings Cross Western Concourse (via Colin on Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.